Those responsible for igniting a bag on the third floor of Pearson Residential College Wednesday morning, which kept residents from entering the building for over an hour, could face expulsion from the university or criminal charges, according to police and university officials.
The alarm was triggered around 4 a.m., at which point third-floor Resident Assistant Anthony Wojtkowiak alerted Pearson Residential Coordinator Brandon Ice that there was a fire near the end of the hall.
“I walked through the hallway and saw a lot of smoke,” Wojtkowiak said, “and then I saw one of my residents exit his room and start beating the fire with his foot on the floor.”
Daniel Feldman, a third floor resident, said he exited his room a little after 4 a.m. and saw “four dudes just standing around” what resembled a bag of burnt popcorn.
“I thought, ‘Aw man, this is ridiculous; they’re probably going to have to call the whole fire department and all these cops and [the fire is] already out,'” Feldman said.
Wojtkowiak said he waited for the fire department and Public Safety officers to arrive so he could direct them to the site of the blaze before exiting the floor with the students.
“I went downstairs and we tried to do the best we could to let students know how long they were going to be outside and try and keep them calm,” Wojtkowiak said regarding his responsibilities as a resident assistant.
Eric Arneson, associate director of the Dept. of Residence Halls, said that students were kept from returning to their rooms until after 5 a.m., when an arson expert had completed his duties. Those who occupied the suite nearest the crime scene were not allowed back in their rooms until around 6 a.m.
According to Arneson, investigators took pictures, swept for prints and did a basic crime scene investigation.
“I think people make poor decisions and do not realize the potential impact on others, not understanding the risk they are putting people in,” he said.
Ice agreed, citing incidents like the Seton Hall dormitory fire in 2000 that killed three students and injured many more as an example of the danger of similar events. In 2003, two students were arrested and accused of starting the Seton Hall fire by igniting a banner.
The university is now offering a $1,000 reward for information regarding the fire. Arneson said the reward was approved by Dr. Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for Student Affairs, at 10 a.m.
“Anytime we suspect there was possible arson or vandalism, we usually offer a reward to try to find ways to partner with our students to find who is responsible and hold them accountable,” Arneson said.
Sgt. Michael Frevola, community affairs spokesman for the Coral Gables Police Department, said criminal charges are dependant on the outcome of the police investigation, which is still ongoing. To press charges, they must determine that the culprits had the intent to burn down the building.
While Arneson and others said the bag was filled with hair, students such as Feldman have heard otherwise.
“We were just real tired and kind of annoyed that it took so many firemen to just stare at a bag of burnt shit,” he said, “and then tell us to go back inside.”
Fabiola Stewart contributed to this story.
Nate Harris may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.